From the editor’s desk: – ‘The Tablet’
It is somewhat bizarre to consult the faithful on matters of doctrine and then not to tell them what the consultation amounted to – particularly when the matters concerned are of the utmost importance to them, affecting the lives and happiness of millions. But this is the corner that the bishops of England and Wales appear to have painted themselves into. They were among the first to realise that the consultation asked for by the Vatican, in preparation for a special meeting of the international synod of bishops in October, could not be conducted in confidence. So they put the text of the Lineamenta, the Vatican’s questionnaire, online and invited responses. It is said the Vatican was displeased by this untoward demonstration of openness, and consequently the bishops have decided to treat the official summary of the responses as top secret.
This raises a suspicion that the content is highly embarrassing. Indeed, independent surveys conducted independently of the consultation in many Western nations drew attention to the wide disparity between what Catholics are supposed to believe and do, and what they actually believe and do. If the summary of the consultation responses is an honest one, that fact must be reflected in it. Thankfully, the inhibitions that have overtaken the bishops of England and Wales have not scared off the German bishops’ conference, which has published the results of its similar consultation – with constructive comments – on the internet. So anyone wanting an idea of what the English and Welsh response is like need only look online for an English language version of the German response called ENG-Fragebogen-Die-pastoralen-Herausforderungen-der-Familie.pdf. Various hierarchies in other countries have also issued summaries of their own consultations, and they are very similar.
This is not satisfactory. The failure to inform English and Welsh Catholics how their views have been summarised comes close to a breach of faith. Even more lamentable is the absence of any reaction, any evidence of leadership. What do the bishops think? Do they believe the official line on all the issues canvassed is still sustainable now that they possess indisputable evidence that the laity have rebelled en masse on virtually every topic? Does that fact have no theological weight? Are the bishops even discussing this among themselves, or just hoping it will go away? What would John Henry Newman have said?
The German and other responses have positive things to offer. For instance, while supporting the admission of remarried divorcees to Holy Communion, German Catholics also support the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment and “Christian values such as love and faithfulness as well as responsibility for one another and for the children” – which they say are also found in second marriages. These principles could be reinforced through Catholic teaching once that teaching had regained credibility.
Society desperately needs to hear that Catholic voice. But first the emphasis in Catholic sexual and family ethics needs to switch from prohibitions founded on a narrow interpretation of natural law to the encouragement of virtue, the fostering of sound, loving relationships, and support for the family as a fundamental pillar of the common good. That is the direction in which this exercise ought to be heading. It would be wonderful to hear a bishop from England and Wales say so.
Here we have a religious organisation (in this instance, the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales) holding back information on the results of a questionnaire seeking information of its corporate membership on their attitude to the impact of discipline in matters of faith and ethical behaviour imposed upon them by the Church.
In a laudable attempt to gauge the acceptability by rank and file Roman Catholics, of the extant Church doctrine and dogmatic stance on issues like abortion, contraception, marriage, divorce and sexual mores; His Holiness, Pope Francis is seeking to find out what might be done by the Church to meet the deep-down needs of ordinary people in the pews, in ways that will help them to remain faithful disciples of Jesus in the modern world.
The fact that Roman Catholic Bishops in other countries of the world (e.g. the GDR) have already published the results of the survey from their dioceses, renders the seeming reluctance of the English and Welsh hierarchy to be suspect in their motivation.
The fact that this article appears in the editorial of the primary Roman Catholic newspaper in the U.K. should warn the bishops of their failure to keep their people in touch with what is going on in this area of the people’s response to ecclesiastical discipline – in the areas of life that are of the utmost importance – especially to young families, on whom the future of the Church depends.
It is on such matters – especially in the world of ethical behaviour – that all Churches have their individual problems. Any seeming avoidance of openness to the reality of the opinions of people in the pew on matters of – for instance – gender and sexuality, can breed indifference on the part of people affected, whose view of the relevance of the Church to the everyday substance of their lives, can be adversely influenced.
We, in Anglican Churches around the world, will also very soon have to come to terms with the fact that homophobia and misogyny are no longer acceptable to the rank and file of people in the pews whose lives are directly affected by the historic institutional perpetuation of such attitudes, which seem, in today’s world, to be ethically indefensible. A more acceptable degree of openness on these issues would help the Church to defend itself against the charge of either hypocrisy or irrelevance in the lives of people in today’s world, where the teaching of the love of God in Christ ought to be paramount.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand